There’s no doubt that motor skills are crucial for growth and development in children. Children need motor skills to move from one place to another by crawling, walking, or running. They also need these skills to perform tasks such as writing and eating.
All children are unique and develop motor skills at different paces. However, children usually experience significant developmental milestones at different points in their growth, especially around six months, nine months, and 18 months. This guide covers everything you need to know about motor skills and how to support a child with delayed motor skills development.
What are motor skills?
Motor skills are muscle movements children and adults use daily. Motor skills enable muscle movement that results in specific tasks like eating, walking, jumping, or running.
Interestingly, no child is born with motor skills. Instead, infants and young toddlers learn them over time through constant repetition and practice.
Motor skills execution requires coordination of the nervous system, muscles, and brain. Although every motion starts in the brain, all three must work together.
Why are motor skills important?
Motor skills are important since they facilitate muscle group movements to perform certain tasks. These skills help:
- Enable movement: Muscle contraction and relaxation facilitate different types of body movement like walking, running, and crawling.
- Perform tasks effortlessly: Muscle movements enable children to perform various tasks like writing, eating, and buttoning shirts.
- Ignite curiosity through play: Infants and young toddlers use their emerging motor skills to learn about the world by reaching for toys, mouthing and manipulating objects, and shaking, banging, and throwing objects. The ability to move supports their cognitive development.
- Build confidence and independence: The ability to perform tasks without assistance is fulfilling and can boost a child’s confidence and self-esteem.
- Promote language, cognitive, and sensory development: When children are physically active, moving as they explore and play, they also work on developing cognitive, language, and sensory skills. For example, when an infant crawls to pick up a rattle, mouths it and then shakes it, they are using cognitive and sensory skills to develop a plan, explore cause and effect, and gather more information from their senses about the rattle.
Types of motor skills
Motor skills fall into two categories: fine and gross motor skills. What is the difference between fine and gross motor skills?
Fine motor skills
Fine motor skills are minor actions that use small muscle groups, require high precision, and involve eye and hand coordination.
Children will reach fine motor development milestones at different paces, but family and caregivers can support the process.
Fine motor skills examples include:
- Using zippers
- Squeezing objects
- Using cutlery
- Playing with toys
- Handling fine material, such as sand
- Cutting with scissors
Gross motor skills
Gross motor skills are bigger actions that use large muscle groups found in the arms, legs, and core. Older children mostly learn, develop, or execute these skills outdoors. Some gross motor skills require precision and hand-eye coordination to execute.
Children also achieve gross motor skills milestones at different paces. Families and caregivers can support gross motor skill development milestones through practice and repetition.
Some examples of gross motor skills are:
- Lifting head
- Throwing a ball
- Climbing stairs
Children often learn and master gross motor skills before their fine motor skills as muscles in the core body develop first (torso, arms, and legs), followed by smaller muscles found in the hands, feet, fingers, and toes.
For more information on fine and gross motor skills, check out this video:
Muscle movement is considered a motor skill when it’s voluntary. So, involuntary activities like eye blinking and breathing aren’t motor skills since you can’t improve them over time through practice and repetition. On the contrary, as the child grows and develops, they can improve voluntary muscle movement with time.
Motor skills development milestones
Motor skills develop at different stages of a child's growth and development. Below, we look at different motor skills development milestones for fine and gross motor skills.
Fine motor skills development
0 to 3 months
- Makes random arm movement
- Watches their hands move
- Brings their hands to their mouth
- Swings their hands to reach for toys and other objects
- Follows peoples’ movement within sight
- Holds objects in their hands
3 to 6 months
- Holds their hands together
- Transfers objects from one hand to another
- Uses both hands to reach for toys
- Notices objects a few feet away
- Pushes up on arms while lying on the tummy
6 to 9 months
- Holds and squeeze objects like rattles
- Uses fingers to move objects
- Brings objects to mouth
- Transfers objects from one hand to another
- Hands remain open often
- Picks up small foods
9 to 12 months
- Flips pages in a book
- Feeds themselves finger food
- Puts objects in a container
- Prefers one hand over the other
- Holds two small objects in one hand
- Develops pincer grasp
12 to 18 months
- Uses a spoon to scoop objects
- Claps hands
- Waves goodbye
- Uses crayons on paper
- Uses both hands to bang things together
- Isolates index finger
18 months to 2 years
- Holds crayons with their fingertips
- Builds three to four block tower
- Opens packages and containers
- Turns pages one at a time
- Puts rings on pegs
2 to 3 years
- Builds nine block tower
- Turns doorknobs
- Zips and unzips
- Copies a circle
- Buttons and unbuttons
3 to 4 years
- Gets dressed and undressed independently
- Uses a fork correctly
- Pours water from a small pitcher
- Draws circles and squares
- Strings small beads
4 to 5 years
- Holds a pencil with a tripod grasp
- Cuts in a straight line
- Completes an 8-12 piece puzzle
- Writes with dominant hand
- Writes name
Gross motor skills development
0 to 6 months
- Supports their head while sitting
- Rolls over
- Plays with feet
- Sits with support
- Reach out for objects
6 to 12 months
- Crawls, stands, or sits without support
- Assumes hands-and-knees position
- Imitates rolling a ball with adult
- Takes steps holding on to furniture
1 to 2 years
- Takes independent steps
- Bends down to pick up toys
- Sits in a small chair
- Picks up and throw objects
- Kicks a ball
2 to 3 years
- Uses both legs to jump
- Runs with control
- Walks up and down stairs with support
- Climbs up and down furniture without support
3 to 4 years
- Stands on one foot
- Walks up and down stairs using alternating feet
- Rides a tricycle
- Catches a ball with the support of the whole body
4 to 5 years
- Walks a balance beam
- Hops on one foot
- Uses playground equipment independently
- Catches a ball with hands
What is motor delay?
Motor skills development in children should follow a pattern. As we've seen above, children are expected to reach certain milestones at specific stages. However, this is not always the case for some children. As such, their motor skills development might be considered delayed.
Children with developmental disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy, and down syndrome are often the most impacted in their motor development. Early diagnosis and intervention can prevent further delays in motor skills development.
Speaking to a pediatrician or developmental specialist at the first signs of delay is important. Early intervention services, such as occupational and physical therapy, are most effective in the first three years of life when the brain is undergoing rapid development.
Everyday activities for developing motor skills
Motor skills development starts at birth and continues as children grow. However, motor skills milestones vary from child to child. Parents and caregivers can encourage motor skills development with various play activities to support muscle strength, coordination, and control. Below are everyday activities to encourage motor skills development in children.
- Offer tummy time
- Place toys out of reach
- Provide rattle toys
- Offer materials with different textures
- Offer board books
- Place toys at a distance to encourage crawling
- Place toys on sturdy furniture to encourage pulling up
- Introduce rolling a ball
- Offer toys that can be pulled or pushed
- Offer finger paint and thick crayons
- Practice rolling, throwing, and kicking a ball
- Offer play dough or clay
- Build a tower (8-10 blocks)
- String large and small beads
- Visit playgrounds with climbing structures, swing, and slides
- Introduce riding a scooter
- Introduce gardening
- Offer interlocking puzzles
- Ride a tricycle
- Introduce baking
- Introduce sewing
- Introduce flying a kite
- Practice jumping rope
- Play hopscotch
Fine and gross motor skills are crucial for children’s physical growth and development. They enable movements like walking, running, and crawling. Motor skills are also important for developing other skills like language and emotional regulation.
Families and caregivers can support motor skills development by encouraging activities such as tummy time, ball rolling, puzzles, cooking, gardening, and playing outdoors. Caregivers should pay attention to motor skills and actively work towards meeting developmental milestones.